Ban vs. medical workers’ overseas deployment stays, says POEA

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A labor department order banning medical staff from working in other countries will stay despite a public clamor for its review and a warning from the country’s top diplomat that he will challenge it before the Cabinet, the head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said on Saturday. (FILE PHOTO)

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 11) — A labor department order banning medical staff from working in other countries will stay despite a public clamor for its review and a warning from the country’s top diplomat that he will challenge it before the Cabinet, the head of the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) said on Saturday.

POEA Administrator Bernard Olalia said the reversal of the ban hinges on two conditions: When President Rodrigo Duterte lifts his declaration of a state of public health emergency, and when host countries reopen their borders to foreign workers.

“The ban is temporary and therefore when circumstances warrant, the Governing Board resolution may be amended anytime… Almost all major destinations of our OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) have imposed also a temporary travel ban and this coincides with our own temporary suspension of deployment,” Mr. Olalia said in a phone interview with CNN Philippines on Saturday.

“The risk of getting infection abroad is also very high as these destination countries are now peaking in number and our temporary suspension will shield our OFWs from greater risk of contracting the virus. Perhaps when the curve in these countries has leveled down or in the downturn trend, then that’s additional trigger to lift the suspension.”

The overseas deployment ban, signed by Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III on April 2, covers physicians, nurses, medical technicians, and other medical staff.

It was quickly met with opposition with an online petition seeking at least 15,000 signatures for a government review close to hitting that mark on Saturday.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro “Teddy Boy” Locsin, Jr. meanwhile took to Twitter in announcing that he will challenge the directive in an Interagency Task Force (IATF) and Cabinet meeting scheduled for Monday.

In his tweet, the country’s top diplomat argued that the ban “violates the Constitution in 3 ways: right to travel, inviolability of contracts, [and] punitive ex-post facto resolution.”

But Olalia, who sits as vice chairman of the POEA’s Governing Board that issued the ban, said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was consulted prior to the decision. The board has five members – the Labor chief, the POEA administrator, and three representatives from the OFW sector – and a resource person each from the DFA and the Department of Health.

“The Resolution rests on firm legal and factual basis,” said Olalia who, like the labor secretary, is also a lawyer.

He was referring to Republic Act 11469, or the “Bayanihan to Heal as One Act”, that mandates government agencies like the POEA to address the shortage of health care workers needed to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“State survival is more important than individual rights in times of national emergency,” the POEA head said.

“The curtailment of the constitutional right to travel and the impairment of private contracts are justifiable because of the present state of health emergency. These types of private rights take a backseat when the issue is one of national survival. Private interests have to give way to State's right to control the pandemic and to save the lives of its citizens,” he added.

The POEA also countered Locsin’s claim that the ban was announced on short notice. Olalia said a separate POEA memorandum circular was issued as early as March to give affected Filipino health care workers ample time to notify their foreign employers.

POEA Memorandum Circular No. 7-A Series of 2020, and dated March 20, states that “the deployment of Filipino health care workers shall be strictly regulated to prioritize and provide support to the health care needs of the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. Such regulation shall be lifted as soon as the pandemic is declared to be under control.”

About two dozen medical staff have been stranded at the country’s airports since Friday, according to the POEA citing data from the Bureau of Immigration. They will be given government aid of P10,000 and assistance by airlines to rebook flights.

The order states the Philippines sends some 13,000 medical workers abroad every year -- yet faces a shortage of 290,000 health workers at home.

An online survey released on Friday by political consultancy firm Publicus Asia showed that 97.6% of the 1,000 polled approved of “providing frontline medical service people with additional pay.”

The online petition that circulated argued that the government's compensation of $10 a day for volunteers is not enough to replace wages earned abroad.